A journalist’s exposé of a year spent inside a fifth-grade classroom in one of America’s struggling schools.
At the beginning of the 2010 school year, journalist Berler took his seat in Mr. Morey’s classroom, focusing his attention on the teacher’s struggles to get through to the students. Yet as Berler soon learned, Morey was hardly the problem. Nor was Brookside Elementary’s principal, its literary specialist or the parents or students themselves. Rather, the blame for the school’s failures seemed to spread among all parties, a realization that provides staggeringly little direction for where the solutions might start. A specter shrouding Berler’s book is the teachers’ fear of their students’ impending standardized tests, the results of which have long-reaching ramifications for their own futures as educators. As Berler reveals, this high-stakes academic environment makes winners and losers—not of individuals, but the schools themselves, providing a less-than-ideal learning situation for the students and their anxiety-ridden teachers. When a student admitted to cheating, she admitted her motive as well: “Mr. Morey said the test was important, and I didn’t study, so I copied off somebody,” she explained. Simplistic as it was, this mea culpa offers the most insight of all—recognition that students want to succeed for their teachers, even if they don’t understand the value of learning for themselves. Equally troubling was Morey’s begrudging admission to occasionally teaching his students “test strategies” rather than course material—an illustration that points toward a shared understanding that it is better to learn to game the system, rather than try to fix it.
Though the story is hardly unique, Berler’s ability to recount the struggles of failing schools through the viewpoints of its primary players—students, teachers and administrators—provides new insight on an old saga.